Photo: Danny Clinch
Years ago, when I worked for the Guild
Guitar Company in Elizabeth, NJ, you
called one day looking for an old, extinct
Guild effects box that we no longer
made. What was that?
It was called the Rotoverb. It was a Leslie
simulator that Guild used to sell back in the
late sixties. I always liked them and was trying
to find a couple more that I thought you guys
might have lying around.
How do you integrate yourself into the
sound of the E Street Band with both Bruce
and Steven playing electric?
I’ve become the “swingman” in the band, by
playing lap steel, pedal steel, Dobro and bottleneck guitar. With Bruce and Steven
playing electric, and Patti (Scialfa, Bruce’s
wife) and Soozie (Tyrell, violin and acoustic
guitar) playing acoustic, we don’t always
need five guitar players, so I started playing
everything else. I have some beautiful
Carter pedal steel guitars, and some terrific
resonator guitars. A friend of mine sent me
a couple of great old lap steels. He has a
huge collection of them.
How did you get the Springsteen gig?
I followed Bruce on the same circuit of
clubs, concert halls and recording studios
over the years and we established a friendship.
It was a great honor for me to join
that band. I think that Bruce is the greatest
bandleader in rock ‘n’ roll history. He’s
a pleasure to work with. He knows how to
prepare you so you can go out and play with
passion and commitment. The E Street gig is
a highly improvisational thing, and Bruce lets
you create freely in that environment.
What made you pick up a guitar in the
first place? Was it seeing The Beatles on
The Ed Sullivan Show?
Yes, it was.
I knew it. How did you progress from there?
I had ten years of classical piano and accordion
training from the age of six, so I had a
musical background, and never would have
become a rock guitarist if it weren’t for that
training. I picked up an old acoustic guitar
we had around the house, and my brother
Tom, who was a member of Grin, taught me
my first chords. It was The Beatles’ songs,
their arrangements, and the way they put
their songs across that opened Pandora’s
box for me. I discovered blues, Tamla/
Motown, Stax/Volt R&B, British Invasion,
folk, country, and so much more, listening
to The Stones and Beatles.
Who were your guitar influences?
Well, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, of course.
I followed the Jeff Beck Group throughout
their US tour for the Truth album. I still think
Jeff’s the greatest living guitarist. I liked Roy
Buchanan early on and got to know him. I
also liked Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete
Townshend, Muddy Waters, and B.B. and
Albert King. Grin did a gig once with Moby
Grape, and their lead guitarist, Jerry Miller,
was a monster player. He was using Marshall
amps and a big, old Gibson hollowbody jazz
guitar. I liked Stevie Ray Vaughan too. All
those guitarists were the “soup” that helped
me form my style.
Grin recorded several albums and had
some success, and then you embarked on a
solo career in the seventies. You’ve always
managed to balance your solo career with
that of a sideman. How do you do it?
When the E Street Band plays, I’m there,
and when they’re not, I do my solo thing.
It’s not hard. I have a great website that’s
managed for me, and complete freedom
to do what I want, musically speaking.
When I’m with Bruce, I’m not the leader,
like I am with my own band. I like not being
the leader for a change.
Your list of credits as a sideman is impressive.
You seem like a classic overachiever.
I’m not an overachiever; I just love making
music, love the live musical environment
and putting out a passionate, emotional,
positive, and spiritual performance for the
audience. I think I’m a great team player. I
love the experience of being in a band. I’m
happy banging on a tambourine and singing
harmonies if that’s what’s needed.
How did you get the gig with Ringo, and
what was it like playing with an ex-Beatle?
Photo: Mark Hendrickson
I was invited to one of Ringo’s birthday parties.
He had a room set up as a studio and
a place to jam. I didn’t get to play until late
at night, but afterwards, Ringo and I talked
things over and remained friendly. He and
his wife Barbara used to come to my gigs. In
1989, he asked me to become part of his All-
Starr Band, and we did two tours together.
Joe Walsh was in that band, too. It was one
of the greatest band experiences I ever had.
Your new CD, The Loner: Nils Sings Neil,
is a tribute to your friend, Neil Young.
Can you tell us how you managed to hook
up with him to record After The Gold
Rush at age seventeen?
I went to see Neil and Crazy Horse four times
at the Cellar Door club in Washington, DC,
and they were incredible. I used to sneak into
clubs and concerts, seek musicians out and
ask their advice. Neil was very kind to me.
He bought me a hamburger and a Coke, and
we talked and started a friendship. Grin had
decided to move to Los Angeles, and Neil
gave me his number and told me to look him
up when I got out there, so I did. One thing
led to another, and I wound up recording
with him and touring as part of his band.
And you used Neil’s old Martin D-18
to record that CD, didn’t you?
Yes. When After The Gold Rush was finished,
Neil gave me the guitar as a gift for
helping him out on the album, and also
because I didn’t own an acoustic guitar. It’s
my most treasured guitar.